Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Unequivocally, Chef Masa Miyake has mastered the art of the high style in a big way. His namesake restaurant Miyake is a sinewy stroke of design genius unlike any other in the city. And the smaller scale Pai Men Miyake casts an intriguing statement altogether, having glamorized a bowling-alley proportioned room into a grandly precious space.
As for the food, I need not go to any other Japanese restaurant in Portland. I chose to go to Pai Men the other night instead of the considerably more expensive Miyake because I was in the mood for a menu of small plates that promise a visual and sensorial array of remarkable flavors.
Having reserved a table for 6:30, we arrived on a Friday night to a nearly full house except for a swath of unoccupied tables in the front of the room. The host, however, started to lead us to the high-top bar tables in the back wedged against the wall.
I stopped him midway to say that I’d rather sit at one of the empty tables in the front of the room. He declined and told us that they were reserved.
“But I have a reservation,” I countered with the bristle and bluster of one who could have said, “I’m hardly chopped liver.”
My friend stopped me in my tracks, and we took our place at the dreary high top feeling very much the outlier relegated to Siberia.
The ideology of high-profile seating is anathema to Portland’s socially blasé restaurant scene unlike the orchestrated mayhem that’s played out in Manhattan and LA restaurants.
I let it go. It’s the nature of the room, I concluded, and northing more.
As I studied the menu I realized that a meal of small plates wouldn’t satisfy my normally ravenous appetite. I decided on ordering from the yakitori menu—a selection of skewered grilled meats cooked over special Japanese charcoal.
For variety, we started the dinner with three small appetizer plates before digging into the 7-piece chef’s choice ($27 per person), a multi-course yakitori tasting.
Our starter selections were, in a word, exquisite. We began with skate wings in a batter made with oxbowzkaya beer and wasabi sauce that was a weaving of flavors so provocative it came off as being utterly essential.
Next up were little hot dogs made from Miyake farm pork cradled in dim-sum style buns dabbed with mustard sauce and a bracing pickled relish. Such a simple dish somehow managed to be a romp through an otherworldly culinary world.
The final trip of the starter trio was oysters in ponzu sauce that were sensational.
When considering the yakitori tasting menu I asked the waitress if the chef would be offering different choices for each of us. She wasn’t sure and said she would find out but never did.
The procession of skewered meats began with two tiny identical skewers on a plate for both of us, representing two orders of the tasting menu. We had several chicken skewers from various parts of the bird cut up into infinitesimal size. These included kimo liver, sagari or bottom of the breast, Kashiwa, or thigh and Kano duck breast. Each was served as is without embellishment. But they were splendidly succulent in their simplicity.
Onto the pork selections we had intestine and belly. The beef course was tongue. The finale was a curious dish that could only be described as dehydrated blackened chicken skin reconstituted on a skewer that was quite tasty until I realized it was pure fat.
We finished this monosyllabic feast barely sated and needing something substantial to round out the meal. It’s as though we went for a voyage on a yacht that never left the harbor.
We asked our waitress to suggest something more robust to finish off the meal. She recommended the tuna tataki salad over greens. It was fabulous and we were on our way.
Though we enjoyed our dinner it was hardly restorative at $150 for two. Our waitress might have warned that such a repetitive tasting menu for two was just too many skewers of meat without enough variety. The appetizers were more interesting and satisfying. And a few a la carte selections from the yakitori list fortified by the wealth of small courses would have given us the brilliance of Masa’s cooking that we hoped to have.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.